The Descriptive Essay
The descriptive essay is unique among academic writing in terms of the level of experiential involvement which arises for the reader. The objective is to paint a vivid picture, thus to conjure a sense of involvement, an emotional and intellectual response that lets the reader feel as if they were witness to the item in description. In this respect, the descriptive essay varies from other forms of scholarly composition which heavily foreground evidential and factual data, instead placing focus on detailed sensory observations. The descriptive essay, then, works to instil in the reader a rich experience of the described topic.
There really is an infinite variety when it comes to selecting a subject for your descriptive essay. Because we are seeking to summon empathy in the reader, to make them feel what we want them to feel, our principal aim is on perceptual aspects. Put simply, as far as is possible, that which you can perceive you may experience. Note that we can perceive a great many different things, places, people, objects, experiences, memories, emotions and more. Thus a descriptive essay can address just about anything; the question is how best to go about it.
Why this Topic?
It is absolutely essential you have a clear idea of why you have chosen this specific topic. Not only will this give you clearer focus, it will help you locate an emotional anchor point. Having a clear impression of your own emotional connection with the subject matter will help you convey those feelings to the reader.
Approaches to Description
Good practice dictates that a descriptive essay employs ingenuity of language. It should not read like a technical description such as one finds in an instruction manual. In other words you don’t want to be too literal, for this would likely read dry and failed to stir any emotion at all. Indeed, the most emotive prose tens in its descriptions to take a roundabout direction in arriving at its point. It uses creative approaches which take us by surprise – but not so much by surprise that we are left baffled.
One such method of creative description is known as de-familiarisation. Basically, it relates to the process of presenting the familiar in an unusual or original way (thus making it on familiar). Usually this is done through metaphorical means. This is a very popular technique in literary writing. Consider the following example from Charles Dickens’s novel, Bleak House. It depicts a busy London street scene during the peak of the Industrial Revolution:
Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Note how this gives us a very visceral, colourful and textured depiction; it is a passage which seems alive with detail. Dickens has achieved this through repeated use of de-familiarisation through symbolic language. Almost every sentence contains some example of metaphor or simile which places the rather banal subject matter (smoke, puddles, mud, commuters) into an unusual yet apt new context.
When in the first sentence we read of “flakes of soot” as big as “full-grown snowflakes”, our mind is positioned in the realm of the organic, of living things (which may “grow”). Already there is a sense of liveliness in the text, then, because the author has started to describe inanimate objects in animate (living) terms. Having established this metaphor, Dickens extends it, attributing emotions to the soot flakes and supposing they are in “mourning” for the “death of the sun” (another example non-living objects being defined in organic terms).
The Importance of Metaphor
As we have seen the use of metaphor can be a vital aid in constructing a powerful description. This is metaphorical constructs tend to inspire new kinds of thought processes in order to decode the information being presented. Because a metaphor will often say something in unique, unusual or even perhaps opaque manner, the reader must embark in at least some degree of analysis in order to discern the intended meaning of the sentence. Hence the reader engaged in the form of deductive reasoning, using context clues to figure out what is really being said.
Silver instance, if we were to suggest that someone has “a heart of stone”, even a reader who was unfamiliar with this metaphor would probably be able to deduce its meaning, seeing as the heart is usually associated with the emotional centre of human life and stone generally has connotations of coldness and lifelessness. Consequently the context enables us to reason that some form of emotional coldness is being gestured at. Note that this is the opposite of what Dickens, in associating inorganic materials with organic processes, was doing in the above paragraph. Hence it has inverse effect, to deaden as opposed to animate.
Generally speaking, you would not want to use metaphor language that is very common, because overuse has rendered such constructions as stale. This of course defeats the purpose of metaphor in the first place. Nevertheless, the above analysis of the “stony heart” metaphor presents us with a good indication of how one might go about constructing a fresh metaphor. You want to consider what emotions you want to evoke and what kinds of imagery will help in achieving. So for example if we wanted to make a description of machinery strike vividly, then you might want to use a lot of personification – as in “the tractor coughed and spluttered”. The point is to bring that familiar description into an unfamiliar framework.
For your writing to succeed you need to paint as vivid a picture as possible. A good rule-of-thumb is to try and engage the five senses. This creates a more complex and synesthetic experience for the reader and is thus more likely to leave a powerful impression.
Structure and Content
One is presented with quite a lot freedom when composing descriptive writing. Because the content will be highly expressive and emotive, you are effectively free to adopt any method which may summon the appropriate feelings.
The introduction paragraph of your descriptive essay would reduce the subject and provide a thesis statement at or near the end of the paragraph. Next would come a series of body paragraphs that work to engineer the dominate impression with descriptive details. Methods of organising these body paragraphs vary depending on the subject matter and your approach to it. The paragraphs could employ dramatic techniques, using a climactic arrangement, whereby description builds up in increments to a final reveal. Or, you might wish to engage in non-linear modes of exposition, whereby the various details are delivered outside of chronological order (i.e. where the beginning of the essay describes the end of the event and then works backward to its origin, which comes in the concluding passages).
Most often the purpose of descriptive writing is to create a dominant impression small to large for the reader. All of the details and language you use should contribute to creating the dominant impression: that single image and emotion you wish to create for the reader.
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